While a recent sobering scientific report received national applause, Catholic pro-life leaders condemned further violations against the tiniest of human lives: the embryo.

This image, provided by scientists at Oregon Health and Science University and the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC), shows a donor egg held by a pipette prior to nuclear extraction during an experiment that is reviving controversy over human cloning. Newscom photo

Published online May 15 in the research journal Cell, scientists in Oregon reported successfully using human skin cells and donated eggs to clone human embryos. These embryos were then destroyed for their stem cells, said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Creating human lives in the laboratory just in order to kill them for research marks a new low in creating a culture of death,” Doerflinger said.

In a statement released the same day as the report in Cell, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, chairman of the USCCB committee on pro-life activities, strongly rebuffed the practice. “Whether used for one purpose or the other, human cloning treats human beings as products, manufactured to order to suit other people’s wishes,” he said.

In light of these developments, Cardinal O’Malley predicted harsh ramifications, not only for the Church, but for the world.

“Creating new human lives in the laboratory solely to destroy them is an abuse denounced even by many who do not share the Catholic Church’s convictions on human life,” he said. “A technical advance in human cloning is not progress for humanity, but its opposite.”

Advances with adult cells

The Church’s official teaching on embryonic experimentation has been consistent: “It is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2275).

While the Church condemns human cloning and embryonic research, legitimate scientific advances, such as adult stem cell research, have been encouraged. The USCCB stance: “The Catholic Church has long supported research using stem cells from adult tissue and umbilical cord blood, which poses no moral problem.”

Adult stem cell research, too, has the added benefit of success while, according to Nancy Paltell, associate director for respect life issues at the Maryland Catholic Conference, embryonic stem cell research has yet to produce a cure.

“Despite all the hype about embryonic stem cell research, it’s adult stem cells that are the only stem cells saving lives,” she said.

Pushing boundaries

If this is the case, then why is the scientific community continuing to stir the extremely murky moral waters of embryonic research with the government’s blessing?

“This latest news report indicates that many in the scientific community will never be satisfied unless they can report that the human embryo — whether cloned or not — is the one, true Holy Grail of stem cell research,” said Mark Latkovic, professor of moral and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. “Their quest will continue despite the fact that adult stem cells have proven far more successful.”

The discovery, Latkovic added, only highlights the determination of researchers to continue to push ethical boundaries. And, he said, curtailing unethical practices may not happen in the near future.

“We’ve heard many promises over the last 15 years that scientists were on the brink of all sorts of wonderful things if just given enough funding and freedom — freedom from politics, principles and protest — to carry out their work,” Latkovic said. “But if the news reports are true, it may well lead, unfortunately, to further work in the area of cloning and human embryonic stem cells.”

Legislative push

State Catholic conferences are fighting those advances in a local arena. During the state’s 2013 legislative session, Paltell petitioned the Maryland General Assembly to pass a bill requiring spending transparency for the $91 million allotted over six years to the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund.

“There’s a problem with the statute that requires the [Fund] to publish an annual report. It doesn’t require that the report contain any research results,” Paltell wrote in testimony submitted to the Senate Finance Committee earlier this year. “The only thing it requires is a description of the type of research performed.”

Paltell also advocated a second bill creating a special fund for sickle cell disease research, which includes cord blood. Paltell has partnered with Save the Cord Foundation, which manages a registry for umbilical cords. According to the foundation’s website, the cord blood can treat “over 80 diseases and research has shown even more potential.”

Paltell testified that patients with sickle cell disease are being cured by “focusing on research using bone marrow or umbilical cord blood transplants. These transplants are the only known cures for sickle cell disease, but the research has been stuck at the experimental stage for decades.”

Both pieces of state legislation passed the Senate, but died in House committees.

Genetic engineering

While the current scientific “advances” are already troubling, what the future will bring is anyone’s guess.

“It could open up a new way to do embryonic stem cell research,” Doerflinger said. “Researchers would use the DNA from born people to produce new embryos that are their genetic twins — and then kill these embryos for their genetically matched stem cells, to study illness in the lab or possibly to attempt therapies. In the future those cloned embryos might also be placed in a womb and brought to birth, because someone wants a ‘copy’ of an already existing person.”

Exploitation does not stop at embryos, Doerflinger said.

“Pursuing cloning for either purpose will also require hiring women to undergo risky fertility drugs to produce many eggs at once, and donate their eggs for cloning research,” he said.

Doerflinger questioned the rationale behind cloning when Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan won the 2012 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for finding a way “to produce genetically matched cells very similar to embryonic stem cells without creating or harming a human embryo.”

In response to debate over whether or not the cloned embryo could develop full-term, Doerflinger responded: “Three years ago the same scientists that have now created cloned human embryos had managed to use cloned monkey embryos to establish pregnancies. So far none of the monkeys has been brought to term, but that is a technical problem — and if it is solved, attempts at bringing cloned humans to birth will not be far behind.”

Latkovic agrees.

“I have learned to never say ‘never’ when it comes to biology,” he said. “The cloning technology that produced the sheep Dolly 17 years ago, has now been shown, it appears, to work with humans.”

Doerflinger reiterated the importance of the Catholic Church standing as a defender of parents, children and the family in opposition to cloning.

“It’s sad but true that some scientists also welcome cloning as the gateway to a brave new world of genetically engineered and ‘perfect’ children,” Doerflinger said. “I wish I could say such things will be technically impossible, but I have no confidence that it’s true. This will probably be yet another thing mankind can do, but needs to be convinced it should not do.” 

Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland.